New York City

Max Rose versus the world

With Donald Trump back on the ballot, Max Rose will have to win over conservatives to keep his House seat.

Portrait of Max Rose by Sean Pressley

Portrait of Max Rose by Sean Pressley Sean Pressley

In a sweat-soaked gym on Staten Island, Max Rose squatted on a wrestling mat, speaking to a crowd of fellow little guys. Staten Island’s first-term congressman was giving a 90-second motivational speech to a group of young grapplers in the Beat the Streets wrestling program, contrasting his own time as a high school wrestler to his current position.

“When you’re out there on the mat, you can’t blame anyone else. … I exist in a world, professionally speaking, right now, where it’s the exact opposite,” he said. “There’s no integrity.”

Then, it was time for the congressman to pick on somebody his own size. Who weighs 125 pounds, Rose asked, searching for a volunteer. 133? 145? Finally one of the kids raised his hand. Rose, wearing athletic shorts, a T-shirt and borrowed wrestling shoes, waved him up. Rose bent his 32-year-old knees into attack position, then grasped the kid’s shoulders. “The duck under was my go-to,” Rose said. “Push the guy, push him.” In a matter of seconds, Rose dropped into a deep squat, lifted the kid up on his shoulder, then slammed him to the floor on his back, pinning him down.

Rose jumped up immediately, not waiting for any two count. “That’s it, I’m done!” he said with a huge smile on his face. The kids laughed with approval. The congressman had earned their respect. And if only they were 18, probably their votes.

The wrestling match was over in the blink of an eye, but Rose is in the middle of a much longer match: running for reelection. He represents a district that President Donald Trump won by 10 percentage points in 2016, and may be the most vulnerable House Democrat in the state of New York. He’s just the second Democrat since 1981 to represent the congressional district, which covers Staten Island and a swath of southern Brooklyn. The previous one, current Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon, lasted just a single term. Like Rose, McMahon was elected during a “blue wave” year. He took office in 2009, and by 2011, he was gone.

Yet Rose is guaranteeing a double-digit victory in 2020, which would exceed his 53%-47% win over then-Rep. Dan Donovan last fall. In that race, Rose appealed to Staten Islanders’ “forgotten borough” frame of mind, railing against the do-nothing elites in Congress and at home. A compact 5’6”, Rose contrasted with the tall Donovan in more than just height. He was the metaphorical little guy, vowing to fight for other little guys. Now, in New York City’s lone district that voted for Trump, Rose is doing all he can to win over even more voters.

Max Rose talks to a bunch of wrestlers
Photo by Jeff Coltin

While Trump won the district, it’s not deep red. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district 206,617 to 121,810, and according to political consultant Jerry Skurnik of Prime New York, past results show that many of the independents in the district lean Democratic.

In the 2014 midterm election, then-Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican, ran away with the race despite being under indictment for tax fraud. Four years later, Rose capitalized on higher turnout in the district, and a greater share of unaffiliated voters. Nearly 111,000 voters came out in 2014, 11% of them independents, according to Skurnik. In 2018, 195,000 went to the polls, and 16% of them were independents.

Even greater turnout is all but guaranteed in the 2020 election since it’s a presidential year. During the last presidential year, 2016, Donovan faced token Democratic opposition from Richard Reichard, a retired civil servant, and won in a rout. Next year, any Republican candidate on the ballot will be hoping that the borough’s support for Trump can lead to a similar victory.

With Trump leading the ticket, Rose’s reelection chances hinge on conservatives who aren’t die-hard Trump supporters. “He has to win over the Republicans who have been against Trump,” Skurnik said. “And he has to win over some of the people who voted for Trump but they did it because they hated Hillary (Clinton).”

And despite massive pro-Trump art installations filling front yards in the district, there are lots of persuadable voters. Take Staten Island’s previous five presidential results: Gore, Bush, McCain, Obama, Trump. And though Trump won 53% of the district in 2016, the president’s support is fading. A month after he took office 57% of Staten Islanders approved of him, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Two years later, just 47% approved.

“Staten Island is Trump country compared to the rest of New York City,” Skurnik said, “but it’s not Trump country compared to Wyoming.”

How to win those voters who are up for grabs? Rose’s not-so-secret weapon is his military service. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service as an Army platoon leader in Afghanistan. He was on active duty from 2010 to 2014, and still serves in the New York Army National Guard. His campaign put his military service front and center, designing his logo in olive drab with a military star, and he used it to counter critiques that he was a carpetbagger, only moving to the district to run for Congress. “I would have moved here sooner, but I was too busy serving my country in Afghanistan,” he said in a debate.

“It’s not a conservative district,” Jonas Edward-Jenks, Rose’s congressional and campaign spokesman, told City & State. “It’s a patriotic district.”

But winning reelection depends on delivering for his constituents.

“Regardless of what level of elected official you are on Staten Island, it is all about the local issues,” Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Oddo told City & State. Oddo is a Republican, but he and the congressman have already formed a cross-party partnership that Oddo admits is closer than the one he had with Donovan, Rose’s Republican predecessor. Sure enough, Rose has made a show of getting involved in the local minutiae, with no issue being too small. He held a press conference last month calling for a new highway guardrail and fought against the proposed siting of a homeless shelter in the district. The federal government shutdown last winter threatened an on-time start to the Staten Island youth soccer league that plays on the federally managed Miller Field in New Dorp. One of Rose’s proudest achievements is starting the soccer season on schedule.

Even more than voting against Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker, or calling the “Green New Deal” “socialist,” this local focus is how Rose demonstrates he’s standing up for the “forgotten borough.” Because on Staten Island, most seats aren’t safe just because of the “D” or the “R” next to the candidate’s name. Voters choose candidates on a different metric.

“A bulk of the people on Staten Island see it: It’s Staten Island versus the world,” Oddo said. “Which man or woman, regardless of their party, is going to give me the best shot of fighting the world?”

Rose had just spent an hour or so greeting voters at the Taste of Forest Avenue street festival and now was kicking back at Jody’s Club Forest in West Brighton, eating chicken wings and sharing a pitcher of Bud Light. The Yankees were on, and the room was full of men and women around Rose’s age. At 32, he’s the youngest man in Congress, even if he trails his New York colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29. Rose was arguing that, even though he grew up in Park Slope and studied at Wesleyan University and earned a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and exclusively wears bespoke suits with his monogrammed shirt cuffs, he’s just a regular guy. “I don’t worship at the feet of the elite, pseudo-intellectual, professional class,” he said. Those people, he explained, are “a little full of shit.”

As if on cue, a constituent approaches his table with a request. It’s Kim Zarrilli, an NYPD detective, who is based at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, a former airfield run by the federal government, and the National Park Service wants them out. Here it is, those Washington bureaucrats making life hell for the hard-working men and women of the NYPD, many of them his constituents. But the NYPD’s not leaving on Rose’s watch.

“Over my fucking dead body. It’s not going to happen,” Rose pledges to Zarrilli. “They’ve been pieces of shit for a long time,” Rose said of the National Park Service. “But we’re going to figure it out.”

It may seem odd that the New York City Police Department, the biggest, richest, most powerful police force the country has ever seen, can be framed as the little guy in this situation, getting bullied by Smokey the Bear. Similarly, it may seem odd that President Donald Trump, a New York City millionaire by the time he was 8 years old, could tap into the white working class and win over West Virginia coal miners. But sticking up for the little guy and slamming the elites has typically been more about style than substance.

That’s not to say Rose doesn’t practice what he preaches. He declined to accept money from corporate political action committees or federal lobbyists. He pointedly didn’t take a paycheck during the government shutdown. Just two months into his term, Rose passed his first bill, which was to provide the land for a seawall on Staten Island’s eastern shore, doing what Donovan failed to do in the six years since Superstorm Sandy. He claims to have led the ongoing effort to increase funding for substance abuse treatment in the upcoming federal budget, a major issue on Staten Island, which has one of the state’s highest rates of opioid abuse. Rose sticks up for the little guy in small ways too. His campaign finance reports show he tips the driver every time he takes a Lyft.

Still, much as Rose rails against the “failures of the political class,” he’s not some burn-it-all-down iconoclast. He’s partnering with colleagues, and already had Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velázquez down to Fort Wadsworth for a joint press conference on changing the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to two-way tolling. After all, Rose may have never been a member of a political club before running for office, but he held jobs in the political establishment. While in college, he interned for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator from New Jersey and candidate for president. After leaving the Army, Rose worked for then-Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson for about a year, in 2015. In between, Rosebriefly interned for then-Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, now a fellow Brooklyn congressman and the fifth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. A former colleague, political consultant Lupe Todd-Medina, told City & State she wasn’t surprised Rose made it to Congress: “He is a product of Team Jeffries.”

The relationship with Jeffries has gotten Rose accused of siding with the establishment. In 2018, Adem Bunkeddeko, a young community organizer and economic development professional, came within 6 percentage points of beatingsix-term Brooklyn Rep. Yvette Clarke in the Democratic primary. A source told City & State that Rose called Bunkeddeko recently and suggested that he pass on challenging Clarke again, even dangling a job in his office if Bunkeddeko wouldn’t run. Bunkeddeko wouldn’t comment to City & State about the conversation. Rose confirmed that the pair talked on the phone, but said the framing was all wrong.

“Yeah, I called Adem to check in with him and see where his head’s at,” Rose said. “I’m not in the business of incumbency protection at all. … Democracy is a beautiful thing, and I would never pressure someone not to run. God bless you if you think about running. I’ll support you.”

Congressman Max Rose wrestles a kid
Photo by Jeff Coltin

Rose has not been afraid to attack other politicians, whether they’re in his party or not. He called Donovan a “spineless coward” for publishing attack ads on Facebook while he was away training with the National Guard. Rose released an ad during the campaign saying New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is “doing a lousy job,” and his takehas only gotten sharper since. When asked about his thoughts on de Blasio’s presidential chances, Rose said he sees a lane to victory for the mayor: “Every other presidential candidate gets on a plane, and the plane crashes.” He has criticized Trump on occasion, but he has also steered clear of antagonizing the president.

Rose now has new targets: the Republicans who are jockeying for the chance to take him on in November 2020. Other House Democrats are fretting over primary challenges, but Rose isn’t likely to have a serious intraparty opponent. He is, however, the only New York City representative who has to worry about a credible Republican challenge. The election is 17 months away, but it already feels like campaign season.

There’s the front-runner, Nicole Malliotakis, an assemblywoman who represents a seat entirely within the congressional district,on both sides of the Verrazzano. She was the Republican nominee for mayor against de Blasio in 2017, but to Rose, “she’s a total joke,” adding she’s “an absolute joke who’s never accomplished anything.”

There’s the long shot, Joseph Saladino, a 25-year-old YouTube personality who goes by “Joey Salads” and made a splash by bragging about how he’s had sex “thousands of times” and sending a tweet calling Brooklyn activist Linda Sarsour “Linda Mouthsores.” “If he wasn’t such a blatant xenophobe, I would think about hiring him. He’s a good marketer!” Rose told City & State, breaking out into laughter. “Unfortunately, we have that whole don’t hire racists policy.” It was unclear whether Rose was referring to Saladino’s “social experiment” where he wore a swastika armband to a Trump rally, the staged video of black men attacking a car covered in Trump stickers, or his 2012 tweet casually using the N-word.

Saladino campaign spokesman Adam Korzeniewski responded in an email to City & State, saying Rose’s “childish insults” show his “xenophilic tokenism and lack of seriousness.”

There’s the former felon, Grimm, who represented the district in Congress from 2011 until 2015, when he resignedafter pleading guilty to felony tax fraud. The Republican served seven months in prison, then tried to regain his seat in 2018, but lost to Donovan in the Republican primary. In March, he told Politico that he’s “90% of the way there” to running again. Rose said he respected Grimm’s service in the Marine Corps, and that “he’ll certainly make the primary interesting.”

Finally, there’s the pro-Trump pundit,New York City Councilman Joseph Borelli, who is currently running a long-shot campaign for New York City public advocate. He’sknown to be interested in the seat and could mount a campaign after his likely loss in the November public advocate election.

That could be too late, since the Republican primary started essentially the moment Rose was elected. But the way Malliotakis puts it,she’s running against the Democratic Party.

“Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have a very organized effort that’s pumping millions of dollars into the campaigns of (Minnesota Rep.) Ilhan Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Max Rose,” she told City & State in an interview. “And I need to compete with that.”

It’s early – 12 months early – but Malliotakis seems to be in the best position to win the Republican nomination next June. She already is getting backing from the GOP establishment, meeting with House Minority LeaderKevin McCarthy and hosting fundraisers featuring Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney. She raised a respectable $300,000in the first quarter of this year, though it was just half of Rose’s $600,000haul. Malliotakis dominated de Blasio in the 2017 mayoral race on Staten Island, winning more than 70% of the vote in the borough. The five-term assemblywoman said that Rose’s politics don’t match the district. “During the campaign, he tried to be ‘Middle of the Road Max’ and a centrist, but now he’s got a voting record that shows otherwise,” she said. But her message is really about who has deeper ties to the district. After finishing an interview with City & State, she called back to hammer her point home.

“It’s not just that I grew up on Staten Island, I went to our public schools, I worked at our local stores on Staten Island,” she said, contrasting herself with Rose, who moved to the island in 2015. “It’s also the nine years’ worth of constituent work, in which we’ve affected hundreds and hundreds of individuals.”

Seventeen months before the election, Rose is already knocking on doors and has five staffers on the campaign payroll, a sign of how much work is going into the reelection effort. But voter by voter, Rose’s focus on sticking up for the little guy is paying off.

On a Sunday in May, Rose and Malliotakis were already in campaign mode. Malliotakis was at the Taste of Forest Avenue festival, which Rose would be coming to later. And Rose was at the Richmond Road Block Party in Dongan Hills, accompanied by three staffers. Rose approached a constituent, 62-year-old Alan Prato, who thanked the congressman profusely. Rose had finally secured federal funding to fix a Prince’s Bay marina, which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Prato and other boaters had been asking politicians for help for years with no results. Then Rose got involved.

“It’s the most we’ve ever been listened to,” Prato told City & State. “We had Grimm come down and Grimm made a lot of promises if he got in, and he didn’t do nothing.”

Prato is a former police officer who voted for Trump in 2016 and still thinks the president is doing a great job. But in 2020, Prato thinks he’ll be splitting the ticket, along with the rest of his fellow boatmen on the deep red South Shore.

“I never voted Democrat. I voted Republican,” Prato said. “Now, honestly, after seeing that (Rose) could pull that off? Yeah, he’s got my vote. And probably he’s got everybody else’s vote down there too.”